The first great innovation of the renaissance to transform popular culture
was the development of a popular literature made possible by the advent
of printing in England in the mid 15th century. Although the common people
were mostly illiterate, the ability amongst the population to read though
unable to write is often underestimated. 1 The earliest forms of popular literature
in the 16th century were :
Broadsides - One sided sheets which typically bore the lyrics of a ballad
intended to be sung, and were often sold by travelling vendors who would sing
for custom at fairs and carnivals. Broadsides could also be adverts, proclamations,
religious tracts, prophecies or astrological almanacs.
Jestbooks - Collections of comic tales, satires, riddles and jokes featuring
lustful clergy, cuckolded husbands and unfaithful wives. Sometimes the comic
tales were based around the adventures of a central comic character such as
Hobson, Scoggin or the English version of the European Till Eulenspiegel
, the folk hero prankster Howleglas who in his wit and absurdity
opposed the power of the innkeeper, the craftsmen, the masters and the clergy.
Howleglas is of that tradition that later produced Grimaldi, Dan Leno, Chaplin
and Jim Carey.
Narratives - Mediaeval romances, Renaissance fiction (Boccaccio,
Chaucer etc.), and narratives concerning the lives of renowned rogues and
Mediaeval popular literature was pivotal to the literary developments of the
late Renaissance, it was a key influence in the development of what Bahktin
terms the 'Grotesque Realism' of Rabelais, Shakespeare, and critically Cervantes
whose Don Quixote of 1605 is widely cited as the first 'novel'. 3
By the mid 17th century popular literature had become a thriving culture of
broadsides, paper covered books and pamphlets sold by the thousands on street
stalls and hawked by itinerant vendors and ballad mongers. This unofficial
literature dealt in songs and stories of love and romance, adultery, violent
crime, murder, witchcraft, devil worship, monsters, human freaks, miraculous
events and bizarre intrigues. Like the 20th century tabloid press and true
crime magazines these ballads and tales were a mixture of fact, fiction and
myth . 4 Aside from sensational tales, handbills and almanacs, there were
also autobiographies by popular writers and personalities, and political and
religious tracts, amongst which would be the tracts of the Diggers and the
Ranters of the English revolution.
The advent of mass printing also expanded popular visual culture; broadsides
and pamphlets were frequently illustrated with woodcuts, and text could be
graphically composed. Text and image were often combined in a variety of graphic
forms; a single framed image could be overlayed with text designating the
meaning of the various image parts, a series of discreet images with panels
of text could depict separate aspects of a theme or a narrative could be depicted
in discreet frames happening in a cause and effect succession. By the 16th
century in continental Europe, and by the end of the 17th century in England
there were broadsides which had developed all the essential formal techniques
of the comic strip : a narrative would be told by a series of discreet
framed images, the temporal action of the narrative was constructed as a montage
from frame to frame and the speech of characters in the narrative was indicated
by banners, speech clouds or bubbles issuing from their mouths. 5
In trade, printed posters and handbills began to compete with the traditional
culture of alehouse and shop signs. Alehouse signs had developed out of the
tradition of monastic hospices ( the Angel, the Mitre etc.) and from the traditional
garland of leaves or hops used to indicate an alehouse (the Hoop, the Bull
and Bush etc.).6 Shop signs could be traditional symbols of a trade or trade
guild, heraldic devices or simply symbolic addresses such as the sign of the
'Sun in Splendour' or the sign of the 'The Moon'. Before doors were numbered
and since the majority of the population of the expanding urban centres were
illiterate, the use of signs for businesses in Renaissance England was an
absolute necessity. Seventeenth Century London was a city of signs, elaborate
painted boards, grotesque carved animals, fabulous comic faces, vast sculpted
hats, shoes, gloves, keys , work tools and other merchandise which hung or
projected into the street.
An anonymous Puritan tract of 1641 provides a vivid description of Bartholomew
Fair in the mid 17th century :
'It is remarkable and worth your observation to behold and hear the strange
sights and confused noises in the fair. Here a knave in a Fool's coat with
a trumpet sounding, or on a drum beating, invites you and would fain persuade
you to see his puppets; there a rogue like a wild woodman, or in an antick
shape like an Incubus, desires your company to view his motion; on the other
side Hocus pocus with three yards of tape or ribbon in's hand, showing his
art of Legerdemain to the admiration and astonishment of a company of cockoloaches.
Amongst these you shall see a grey goose cap, (as wise as the rest), with
a what do you lack in his mouth, stand in his boothe, shaking his rattle,
or scraping a fiddle, with which children are so taken, that they presentlie
cry out for these fopperies: and all these together make such a distracted
noise, that you would thinck Babell were not comparable to it.' 7
A 'motion' was a puppet show and "What do you lack !"
was the cry of the street sellers.
In 1614 Ben Jonson, acclaimed by his contemporaries to be the finest
playwright of his age, wrote his carnival satire 'Bartholomew Fair'
which takes as its action a day at Bartholomew in which a puritan family
and a magistrate are outwitted and eventually charmed by the rogues and players
of the fair. A principal character is Nightingale a ballad seller who sings
' Ballads ! ballads ! fine new ballads: Hear for your love or your money
A delicate ballad o' The Ferret and the Coney'
' The Preservative again the Punks ' evil.'
Another of ' Goose-green Starch and the Devil. '
'A Dozen of Divine Points' and the 'Godly Garters'.
' The Fairing of Good Counsel' , of an ell and three quarters.
What is't you buy ?
' The Windmill blown down by a whitches fart!'
Or ' Saint George, that O! did break the dragon's heart !' 8
The play was performed to great acclaim in a booth at the fair to an audience
who could recognise themselves amongst the characters, and there is even a
puppet show within the play which translates the ancient classic heroes of
Greece into the common folk of the Thames. 9
The development of mass printing effected popular culture in two critical
areas, firstly it initiated the industrialisation and commodification of the
popular and secondly whilst printing expanded the popular culture of the Renaissance
it also began a process of limiting and fixing cultural forms which were previously
part of an improvised and oral tradition. Anonymous songs, stories and jokes
which before printing were constantly modified and hybridised as they passed
amongst the people became fixed in printing to a written authentic
In 'Carnival and Theatre' (1985) Michael D. Bristol links the
initiation of the suppression of popular culture to the development of the
author and the rise of the professional theatre in the 16th and early
17th century. 11 The development of the permanent and professional theatres
of Renaissance London from the temporary carnival theatres of the market place
and the Holy Day took place during a period of sustained attack upon popular
culture by both the State and by Puritan reformers. In an age where a new
social mobility began to threaten the mediaeval hierarchy and the country
was riven with religious conflict and civil insurrection the theatre was viewed
by the ruling class as a potential threat to the social order. Bristol cites
Phillip Stubbes' ' The Anatomie of Abuses' (1583) as a key document
of Puritan opposition to the theatre. Stubbes' denounces plays and players
as a subversion of the social hierarchy, as sacrilegious of the divine word
of God and as fraudulent dissembling. The theatre that Stubbes' denounces
is the theatre of the carnival :
'Anatomie of Abuses appeared at a time when there was considerable theatrical
activity but relatively little dramatic literature. In Stubbes's view, 'playing'
is most closely connected with such popular festive customs as wakes, maypoles
and Lords of Misrule; it has relatively little to do with literature. The
denunciation of theatre addresses a situation in which playing has precedence
over serious writing. The players are not 'actors' - they are the immediate
creators of the performances and interludes. Their creativity relies on their
capacity to extemporise dramatic texts out of 'secondhand' or 'used' plays
combined with other materials, including literary and folk narrative, by their
own improvisatory skill. This is a form of creativity that favours contingent
and ephemeral manifestations over the finished text or work of art. The resulting
aesthetics of heterogeneity, crude sensation and parodic mimicry create a
situation of maximum-intellectual and affective openness, but minimum accountability.
In Stubbes's view, the player is able to say forbidden things with impunity,
and only one political and administrative response to this is possible - the
complete abolition of playing and the proscription of players. ' 12
For its duration the carnival play drops out of the hierarchy of the feudal
state, the common players take on the guises and regalia of nobility or even
divinity, and yet they also ambivalently remain themselves, free to shift
their identity between the real and the mimetic, this is the 'play '. The
play also drops out of time, it resists the feudal time of productive labour
and threatens the authority of history for it brings the past into the present.
There is no unified authority which controls the meaning of the play, the
carnival play is ephemeral and unfinished, it is created by the diverse performances
of the players and the shared culture of the audience. As the carnival theatre
became established in permanent playhouses so its subversive potential intensified
for it was no longer contained by the official sanction of the feudal calender
or the social authority of the mediaeval guilds. The playhouse became the
site of a utopian collective and promiscuous transgression and hybridisation
of culture, a temporary autonomous zone in which classical learning, the grotesque,
poetry, slapstick, tragedy, comedy, mime and the real interact and hybridise.
Harassed by attack and repression but driven by the new secular power of capitalism
the playhouses of the early 17th century began to negotiate a new legitimacy
by adopting the conditions of literature. A process was initiated in
which the anonymous improvisational collectivity of carnival theatre was replaced
by the individual author and the authority of a text corresponding
to the educational and moral model of literature. Bristol identifies Ben Jonson
as a key figure in this process and 'Bartholomew Fair' as an articulation
of it, for it is in 'Bartholomew Fair' that Jonson as the author strikes a
contract with the audience: if they are silent, motionless, patient, tolerant
and steadfast and if they do not attempt to interpret his characters and drama
as a cipher for actual people or events, then Jonson in return agrees as the
author to provide an entertainment which is not the fair itself but which
is an authorised version of the fair. The seal of this contract is
the price of admission. 14
Jonson was also a pioneer in the new industry of publishing for in 1616 he
published The Workes of Benjamin Jonson the first collected works of
an English playwright.
With an authoritative text the author becomes accountable to the state and
subject to the law, but they also become the individual master and owner of
the text and so able to sell their text as a commodity. The author becomes
the individual creator of the play and the players become mere servants who
act out the text.
'The integration of literary and verbal creativity into more general forms
of ownership and delegation of authority is the enabling act for the professionalization
of creativity and its legitimation as a means of livelihood. This individualization
of artistic production is the basis for the legitimation of the theatre. The
author is defined as the owner of his text and thus as an individual who might
be punished or subjected to litigation. The audience is decomposed into private
individuals who appreciate a text without interpreting it; the actor is an
artificial person whose words originate from and are delegated by a well-defined
centre of authority. In this allocation of functions, there is no one left
who can say forbidden things with impunity, and the dangers of an ambiguously
allocated or dispersed authority are safely contained.' 15
Bristol follows Bahktin in considering carnival as pivotal in the generation
of Renaissance culture. It is the collective hybrid carnival theatre that
is articulated in the great works of Renaissance theatre,
but the birth of the great authors initiates the historic exclusion
of the carnival from the theatre. However this exclusion was only ever partially
successful and as we shall see, it was not achieved without violence.